Dream Of Reason…

In their latest transmedia project French artists and researchers Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon present a large collection of texts, images, and films related to the idea of a World Brain. The project, published on ARTE creative, is a stroll through motley folkloric tales: data centers, animal magnetism, the Internet as a myth, the inner lives of rats, how to gather a network of researchers in the forest, how to survive in the wild using Wikipedia, how to connect cats and stones…The World Brain is made out mostly of found materials: videos downloaded on YouTube, images, scientific or pseudo scientific reports, news feeds…

Jitter .Magazine: World Brain had its world premiere at this year’s transmediale festival Berlin, which focused on the theme ‘capture all’. For your own project you captured most of the content from the internet. How is the idea of ‘capture all’ reflected in your work?

Stéphane Degoutin / Gwenola Wagon: What happens when the planet captures itself? Our projects question this endless repository of digital resources. Globodrome tells the story of a world tour captured through the representations of the planet that are geolocalised on Google Earth, by following the same route as Jules Verne in Around the World in Eighty Days. In Cyborgs in the Mist, we completed an on-site enquiry in Saint-Denis (a northern suburb of Paris) by footage found on the Internet, which would not have been possible to film (data centers, evangelist churches filmed by their own adepts in trance, meat and bone meal factory…). War and Dance Party in Iraq show “backstage” scenes from a war: soldiers dancing on the battlefield. All our projects question what happens to a world which looks more and more like cyberspace, like the virtual worlds which had previously been described in SciFi novels. How can we relate our explorations of these worlds?

Server Farm, film still taken from <i>World Brain</i> by Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon, episode 3

Server Farm, film still taken from World Brain by Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon, episode 3.

It took four years, from 2012 to 2015, to realise the project. How did the work develop and which criteria helped you to decide what to include and what not?

First we wanted to follow the laying of a fiber optic cable in the North-west Passage, near the North Pole. We wanted to show how such connections transform the notion of continents. If Tokyo is connected with London in a few microseconds, can we still speak of a continental gap? We wanted to film on the boat, to document the very physical act of laying the cable on the ocean floor, a cable which costs several hundred millions of dollars. What led mankind to build these information networks? We also wanted to question the utopias of the early nineteenth century, notably Saint-Simon. To know how this utopia will evolve in the future, we wanted to know where it comes from. We wanted to put this question to philosophers, thinkers, writers and researchers. But, in the end, we did a very different movie. We did not want to answer any of these questions any more. Yet, they were still in the background. So maybe, what took so long was to realise that the questions we first asked ourselves would finally almost disappear.

Truth is uniform, but error is endlessly diversified

It’s hard to tell what World Brain—as an art project—is. Is it an archive, a research tool, a story, an entertaining website, a documentary, a history of communication, a …?

We tried to find a way to show a movie and a map of references together. We were really impressed when we discovered Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. From 1968 to 1972, the Whole Earth Catalog gathered books, objects and tools aimed at understanding the world and creating alternative societies. Its primary public were the hippie communes. It used the codes of a mail order catalog to provide its readers with a direct “access to tools and ideas”. In a similar way, we wanted to realise a map that gives a panoramic view of all the resources we had used or which had some connection to our film. On the map, each sequence is surrounded by texts and images, which complete it and put it into a broader context. Each of the video sequences of the film (which last 2 to 5 minutes each, approximately) are mixed with images, texts and links. Each sequence develops its own logic, with its own title, beginning and end. They can be watched separately. But they can also be played in a sequence, as a feature film. The viewer enters the site via a full screen linear film. The map is behind, and can only be accessed by “zooming out” from the film. Zooming out lets one see the media surrounding each chapter of the film. A menu lets one navigate through the different chapters.

H. G. Wells, World Brain. First-Edition, Methuen-Publishing, 1938.

H. G. Wells, World Brain. First-Edition, Methuen-Publishing, 1938.

By including eighteenth and nineteenth century scientific experiments with animal electricity, animal magnetism, H. G. Wells, cybernetic ecology, Whole Earth Catalog, data centers, John C. Lilly, Charles Darwin, Google, high frequency trading, even Necomimi Brainwave Cat Ears, and much more, World Brain resembles a labyrinth with the idea of a world brain serving as a virtual center … What was the most surprising discovery for you?

Maybe it is the quote by Benjamin Franklin, which we have put at the beginning of the film: “Perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists, and does not seem to require so much an active energy, as a passive attitude of soul in order to encounter it. But error is endlessly diversified; it has no reality, but is the pure and simple creation of the mind that invents it. In this field the soul has room enough to expand herself, to display all her boundless faculties, and all her beautiful and interesting extravagancies and absurdities.”1

The most surprising is to find, at each epoch, the same gullibility and ingenuity faced with new technologies. Mesmer says he discovers animal magnetism, when in fact he explores the power of collective suggestion, which is no less fascinating. Today, the latest discoveries of mind reading may take us elsewhere, into a field which is not at all the one foreshadowed by the popular science press, which by the way fuels the less probable fictions. We have made a series of books (which can be found on the map) which explore the phantasmagorias inherent to the desire for connection between human beings: La Société nuage 1 and 22 explore the space of the data centers, while De Mesmer aux rats télépathes (From Mesmer to Telepathic Rats)3 explores the fantasy of mind reading.

Science et Vie, June 1953.

Science et Vie, June 1953.

The point where ideas and fantasies converge

The term World Brain was coined by American writer H. G. Wells in 1936. With the experience of WW1 in mind Wells was concerned about the fact that “we live in a world of unused and misapplied knowledge and skill.”4 In his opinion, disconnection renders all the great knowledge in the world useless. To fix this problem he suggested a “modern World Encyclopaedia [which] should consist of selections, extracts, quotations, very carefully assembled with the approval of outstanding authorities in each subject, carefully collated and edited and critically presented.”5

It was a liberal-minded idea and he was convinced of its peacemaking power. Although the internet could in some way be seen as the realisation of his idea, the aim of better structured knowledge to support decision-making for the benefit of mankind is not fulfilled. On the contrary—I would assume—the level of fear and disorder has significantly increased. The internet is both, more and less what Wells had in mind. It is more complex and less focused, and its driving force is economic and military power, not knowledge. Keeping this in mind, could we really expect from a type of World Brain envisioned in your project—which goes far beyond the internet—anything else but even more fears, more control, more disorder?

Just as we have several brains, there are several Internets, and one could argue that there would be a multiplicity of intelligences shared through parallel networks. H. G. Wells wrote World Brain before the second world war, hoping to “save” the world from a war. After the war, he was deeply afflicted by the way history overtook him and his projects for peace. He believed there was no viable future.

Today, the idea of a global brain can be considered as a modern myth. By saying that, we do not imply that a global super-intelligence is actually emerging (we do not believe it is the case), nor that our epoch truly believes such a thing will happen (we do not believe it is the case neither, or at least not really, not literally in this form…). The idea of a world brain can be understood as the interlacing point for all sorts of ways of considering the world. To name a few: information conceived as a universal matter, running through everything; the central nervous system seen as the most important organ defining the human itself; the desire for a universal means of communication which would bypass the limitations of existing means (what we would call “universal connectivity”); last but not least the promise to communicate directly through the inside of the brain, bypassing the filter of consciousness. All these ideas are ubiquitous in the way we see the world today, in the way we project ourselves into the future.

The idea of a world brain could be seen as a vanishing point, as in a perspective. It is the point where the ideas and fantasies by which the way our epoch understands and represents itself converge. The point to which are directed its desires and fears that cannot be expressed in a rational fashion. As in a perspective, the vanishing point is always located infinitely far away. Yet, every direction points to it. But probably, before we even begin moving in the direction of this point, another one will appear and take its place. All the lines of thought will then converge elsewhere. Yet, for the moment, they are still converging in this direction.

Cybernetic Ecology, photo from <i>World Brain</i> by Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon.

Cybernetic Ecology, photo from World Brain by Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon.

The advantage of sniffing each other’s asses

The improvement of communication by connecting human brains with each other, with animals, with plants lies at the core of the World Brain idea. According to Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser man communicates because he is conscious of his own death. To hide himself from the unbearable fact of a lonely life sentenced to death man weaves a veil of communication. Thus, Flusser argues, “human communication is a trick against the loneliness-to-death”.6 Our attempts to communicate with animals add another layer to this issue. In his famous essay “Why look at animals?” British writer John Berger argues that “with their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.”7

The great hope connected to a world brain is the chance to overcome our essential loneliness. Assumed we manage to do so, will we then be happy, unified in a single mind with no threatening otherness left?

Being connected to the others does not necessarily mean that otherness disappears. The recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen seem to indicate that putting different ways of seeing the world in close contact through the Internet intensifies the differences in the ways we see the world, rather than unifying them or making otherness disappear. Regarding the differences in human cultures, one could argue that in the long run, these differences might disappear. I don’t know.

Imagine, for instance, what would happen if a human being connects to a dog, and if the dog keeps sniffing other dogs’ asses? There is not so much reason for a human being to do this. But would we learn from this behavior? Would we begin to understand the advantage of sniffing each other’s asses, and start to do it? And, if we do, will the otherness of the dog disappear? Will human beings become like dogs, and sniff each others’s asses? If they connect to trees, will they tend to feel the wind or… whatever a tree feels? Will they adopt the rhythm of the life of a tree? And, the other way around, will the tree feel like a human being since it connects with a human being? It is easy to imagine a SciFi scenario, in which all the living creatures in a forest would connect together and form a super brain. But would the forest have any interest in the way human beings think, for instance? Would it try to become something other than a forest? We can imagine that human beings might have a drive to expand their boundaries towards other species or other entities. But is it true for other species / entities?

Kevin Warwick, Engineer, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Coventry Univ. (UK), film still taken from <i>World Brain</i> by Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon, episode 20

Kevin Warwick, Engineer, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Coventry Univ. (UK), film still taken from World Brain by Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon, episode 20.

British engineer Kevin Warwick aka Captain Cyborg is famous for his experiments in brain to brain communication (see the Total Brain section of World Brain). Regarding the body his opinion is radically simple: we don’t need it, it’s a prison, let’s recreate ourselves as a new species of brain beings.

The body has been a target of negation and abuse for ages (not only) in the Western world. As long as we had a Christian soul ready to take over for an eternal afterlife this attitude was—let’s say—hardly surprising. But the materialists’ hatred of the body is as vital as that of the metaphysicians. The most advanced material culture in history aims to extinguish the body completely to free mankind in an eternal brain life.

According to Kevin Warwick or Ray Kurzweil, we could leave the physical world, become mere abstractions. We would not need our bodies any longer. We would develop a higher form of communication, through intelligence and consciousness, what you call ‘brain beings’. We would be better off as pure brains. But of course, if we were brains without bodies (assuming that this might be possible), without any physical incarnation, then why would we stay within the limits of the self? Why wouldn’t we merge into the collective intelligence? Why stay within the limits of one individual if there is no physical limitation? Then we would no longer be individuals.

At the end of World Brain we toy with such a fantasy. The researchers in the forest create a sort of green skin (developed with Lou Delamare) which lets them lose the limits of their bodies and connect with nature. It is an extreme form of communication, in which one would lose the limits of his body to connect with nature directly through his nerves and veins, bypassing consciousness. In this approach, the utopia of communication gives the body the most important place: the body becomes the medium.

Film still taken from <i>World Brain</i> by Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon, episode 24

Film still taken from World Brain by Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon, episode 24.

A cynical masterpiece

World Brain is shifting between a quality and quantity approach. The latest trend in self-surveillance, the ‘quantified self’, shows unmistakably: we live in a world of quantity. People don’t trust their own perception but delegate responsibility for their well being to some invented scale of numbers captured by and displayed on some electronic device. Everything gets improved by numbers. The more the better (or the less the better, depending on the function in question). A different, not measurable, kind of quality can be found in perception, art or spirituality (call it our inner world.) The illusion produced by the world brain is to bridge the gap between the inner and outer world through technology. The experiments of Kevin Warwick point in that direction …

It is indeed a very strange utopia: the most scientific and ‘objective’ approach is supposed to drive us to the most inner part of ourselves. The quantity leads to the inner self, etc. This dream has been pursued by Paul Otlet for instance, with his dream on a Mundaneum, at the beginning of the twentieth century (more on Paul Otlet in the World Brain section Between Animal and Crystal).

To me one of the most interesting ideas is that of cybernetic ecology: a way to reconcile man and nature through technology as envisioned by Richard Brautigan in his 1967 poem All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace. It might be a romantic utopia, it might be soothing, but it’s scary at the same time, of course, because God is replaced by machines. However, it opens the way to a different kind of thinking … plus we will keep our bodies.

The idea of a cybernetic ecology can be understood in different ways simultaneously. The main idea is to imagine links between fauna, flora and ourselves. The set designed by Olivier Peyricot embodies this idea in the film. This is part of a desire to connect worlds which increasingly tend to separate from each other. The development of the technological tools contradicts the whole history of mankind’s evolution. Your apparatus becomes this opaque black box, hermetic to any contact.

Richard Brautigan’s poem is a cynical masterpiece, in the vein of Archizoom’s No Stop City or Superstudio’s Continuous Monument. What if we push the logic of our times to an extreme? He describes a world which is, at the same time, desirable and frightening. We could keep our bodies, but each cell would be connected to each grain of sand in the world, each atom in the universe… The perspective of merging with the whole universe is indeed scary.

The interview was conducted via email on 26th February 2015.

World Brain auf ARTE Creative http://worldbrain.arte.tv
Artist’s website http://nogovoyages.com
1 Benjamin Franklin, Report of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, and other commissioners, charged by the King of France, with the examination of the animal magnetism, as now practised in Paris, (1784). —back
2 Stéphane Degoutin, La Société nuage 1, Paris, Média médiums, 2014. http://www.blurb.fr/b/5160975-la-soci-t-nuage-01 —back
3 Gwenola Wagon, De Mesmer aux rats télépathes, Paris, Média médiums, 2014. http://www.blurb.fr/books/5159039-de-mesmer-aux-rats-t-l-pathes, http://www.mediamediums.net/ —back
4 H. G. Wells, World Encyclopaedia, Lecture delivered at the weekly evening meeting of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, November 20th, 1936. —back
5 Ibid. —back
6 Vilém Flusser, Kommunikologie, Fischer: Frankfurt am Main, 1998, p.13. —back
7 John Berger, About Looking, Random House Digital, Inc., 1980, p. 6. —back